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Music Reviews
This is not my beautiful opera! (Courtesy of Nonesuch)

David Byrne’s solo works have always been challenging. Most people, admittedly, never made it all the way through the sound experiment The Forest or the trip-hop meltdown, Feelings. It’s OK; rumor has it Byrne didn’t either. His obsession with world music and complex polyrhythms was always hinted at during his tenure with new wave pioneers Talking Heads, and it has become a fully fleshed out idea within his solo work. It has, however, always been a troubling endeavor: beautiful yet inaccessible.

Byrne’s latest release, Grown Backwards, finds the eclectic leader experimenting with pop covers (Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer”), opera (including a duet with Rufus Wainwright) and a full-time orchestra (The Tosca Strings). Many, if not all of the songs, are complimented by the bob-and-weave tactics of hurried strings and spacious arrangements, juxtaposed with Byrne’s lofty tenor. This, in part, contributes to the superior flow and sequencing of Grown in relation to Byrne’s other works which have, at times, seemed jerky and unrelated to one another.

His power has always rested in musical delivery: excessive and theatrical. But it seems that the more direct Byrne becomes, the less emotive he becomes, and the more subtle and subversive he becomes, the more strident and emotive he becomes.

Continuing where 2003’s Lead Us Not into Temptation left off, the record’s opening track, “Glass, Concrete & Stone,” is a densely layered work blending strings, minimalist guitar and tabla percussion. “The Man Who Loved Beer” is a lush, melodic exercise for The Tosca Strings. “Dialog Box” and “The Other Side of Life” are the record’s peak, however, with their swaying Motown horns and danceable rhythms, coupled with syncopated strings and a beautifully arranged rhythmic swing.

Two tracks, “Au Fond du Temple Saint” and “Un Di Felice, Eterea” find Byrne awkwardly tackling opera. The latter, a piece by Verdi, finds Byrne comfortably projecting his voice upon a subtle canvas of piano and minor strings. His tenor protrudes through the nearly empty music, which showcases his melancholy vibrato. The former, a piece by Bizet, features pop-singer Rufus Wainwright, and as a result, loses the intimacy and effect of the latter. Also, Wainwright’s voice and range, when displayed against Byrne, are weak and leave much to be desired.

With every Byrne solo effort, however, there are a handful of aberrations. “Empire” is a weak attempt at political satire, while “Glad” is a swirling, macabre nursery rhyme that slowly builds but is unfortunately cut short, ruining any chance of it becoming developed. “Pirates,” an uninspired return to Byrne’s Latin phase, and “Astronaut,” a half-baked attempt at lyrical abstractionism, combine to make the latter third of the record a tough run.

Where Grown Backwards excels, it is perhaps Byrne’s strongest, most impressive musical solo effort to date, folding his obsessions with Afro-Cuban rhythms, American art funk and work-a-day surrealism into his sweetest melodies ever. The former Talking Head has rarely sounded as vital. Where Grown Backwards misses, it is the sound of an icon fully utilizing his space for a shrugged-off experiment.

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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